I haven't yet thought of any interesting linguistic aspects of last night's State of the Union message, or of the various official and unofficial responses to it. But in preparing for the event, I saw some coverage of a recent speech in Iowa where Rep. Michele Bachmann said something that made me wonder about the meaning and rhetorical use of the word "generations", and about her particular choice of the phrase "21 generations" to describe the historical span of American ideals.
Because it's a single question now
that hangs over our country
and it's a question that Abraham Lincoln raised
one hundred fifty years ago almost to this very night
when Abraham Lincoln asked if the liberties of our country would be preserved
until the latest generation
And a bit later, she added that
For twenty one generations in America
we've listened to Lincoln's words
we have faithfully performed to the next generation
I'm not very good at mental arithmetic, so by the time I figured out that 21 generations in 150 years works out to a bit more than 7 years per generation, I'd lost the thread of Rep. Bachmann's speech. Tuning in again, I heard something about the 234 years since the Declaration of Independence in 1776; but 21 generations in 234 years, I calculated, is only about 11 years per generation.
At this point, Ms. Bachmann was saying something about the Mayflower:
They all bound themselves back
to this tradition, this covenant
that was contained in the Mayflower Compact
this covenant that we re-published in the Declaration of Independence
The Mayflower Compact happened in 1620, which was 390 years ago. So I recalculated, and determined that 390/21 is a bit less than 19 years per generation. 19 is better than 7 or 11, but it still seemed a bit short to me. And most of those generations, whatever their length, certainly didn't "listen to Lincoln's words", though maybe that part was sort of figurative.
Anyhow, I went off to read the Mayflower Compact, and then I came back to Rep. Bachmann making it clear that she really did mean "twenty one":
It's been twenty one generations
that America has survived.
For twenty one nations
we've passed the torch of liberty
from one generation successfully to the next.
And the question we need to ask ourselves tonight is this:
Will it end with us?
The question that I was asking myself, though, was "why *21* generations"? Why not 20, or 22, or 11, or whatever? Is there some traditional or numerological reason? And when did these 21 generations start, anyhow?
I want to make it clear that my purpose here is not to pick nits or to poke fun at Rep. Bachmann. The "21 generations" theme was clearly an central part of what sounded like a stump speech. She used the phrase as though she could assume that her listeners would know what she meant, and perhaps would even find the phrase familiar. But it's new to me, and a quick web search didn't identify for me any tradition of counting generations in American history that would give us 21 of them from some important reference date up to the present.
Nor did I discover any obviously-relevant biblical reference. I turned up J. Schwartz, "A Newly Discovered Key to Biblical Chronology", Biblioteca Sacra 1888, which promotes a numerology in which 21 features prominently:
But this seems to be far from the usual interpretation — Schwartz needs to argue that St. Matthew's tally was sadly mistaken, for example. And Schwartz's numerology does not seem to have been widely adopted in the many other discussions of the question of Biblical generations. In one more recent example:
The New Testament opens with the genealogy from Abraham to Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of this genealogy, Matthew 1:17 states, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.” These three groupings are all considered fourteen generations. When looking at the average generation for each group, we find that the generation length differs.
The average generation from Abraham to David (Matt. 1:17) was approximately 64 years, while the average generation for the other two groups was 38 years.
Turning to more secular authorities, the American Heritage Dictionary's sense 2 for generation is:
the term of years, roughly 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.
The OED's sense 5.b.:
The average time it takes for children to grow up, become adults, and have children of their own, generally considered to be about thirty years, and used as a rough measure of historical time.
Encarta's sense 3:
time taken to produce new generation: the period of time that it takes for people, animals, or plants to grow up and produce their own offspring, in humans held to be between 30 and 35 years
If a generation is 30 years, then 21 of them is 630 years, and 630 years ago was 1380. This is too late for Leif Eriksson and too early for Christopher Columbus.
[Update — in the comments, Adrian Bailey points us to Don Devine, "How Long Is a Generation? Science Provides an Answer", Ancestry Magazine 2005, which quotes a study among the !Kung finding "a mean of 25.5 years per female generation [and] a male generational interval of 31 to 38 years"; another study done in Quebec which "determined that male generations averaged 35.0 years while female generations averaged 28.7 years"; and a study in Iceland that found "a female line interval of 28.12 years for the most recent generations and 28.72 years for the whole lineage length", and male generational intervals of "31.13 years for the recent generations and 31.93 years overall". So 30 years is a pretty reasonable overall average.]
So, in sum, what did Rep. Bachmann mean by 21 generations? Did she perhaps divide the 390 years since the Mayflower by 18, getting 21.67 and rounding down to 21? Wherever the "21 generations" theme comes from, is it her own idea, or did she get it from some independent historical or political or religious tradition?
[Update #2 — The links and quotes served up by fev suggest that I was too quick to dismiss Mr. Schwartz's reasoning as atypical, and that multiples of 7 generations, and 3*7=21 generations in particular, do pervade the numerology of eschatological speculation. And Ian Preston has found several links suggesting that for many people such phrases apparently do evoke (as Ben Hemmens puts it) the idea that "the coming of Obama(care) … can be cast as a great abomination foretold by the prophets".]